Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.

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